Review Summary: A latecomer to the 2008 party, the blind couple from Mali have surely made one of the most enduring records of this year.
Amadou & Mariam's last album, 2005's Dimanche Ã* Bamako
, couldn't possibly have been more worthy. It was like a Guardian reader's ultimate treasure trove - a blind, African husband-and-wife team, produced by the eternally hip Manu Chao, making the kind of 'world music' that simply has to exist in every accountant's record collection. It was good, for sure, but it was also just a little too easily dismissed by anybody who dislikes tokenism.
So the blind couple from Mali have gone away and done the artistically AND financially smart thing - dumped Manu Chao and made a pop album. It's almost as if they went to America, switched on the radio, got bored, and decided to show all those Westerners how it's REALLY done. It's not even an African album with a Western sheen - it's a proper big-budget pop album that just happens to be made by people who grew up with African music. There are shades of Hendrix throughout, and other touches that call to mind sources as diverse as The Supreme, The Animals, and Funkadelic (check the sick vocoder on the title track!), and the stupidly under-rated K'naan even shows up to drop a guest rap on "Africa". Mali's most persistent musical mascot Damon Albarn also contributes production to the album's first three tracks, which include the blissed-out electro of the fantastic single "Sabali". Throw all your ideas about highlife and Afrobeat out of the window; this sounds more like M.I.A. and Asian Dub Foundation than it does Fela Kuti or Toumani Diabete.
The reasons that this is a good thing are legion. For one thing, it's a pop album made by people who have no understanding or respect for the mechanisms of the pop industry in the English-speaking world, which means that all personality, intelligence, invention, and vibrancy is left intact. Like a great portion of African music, it's almost aggressively upbeat. Most importantly though, it means that the fact that these two people happen to be blind is now a secondary concern; the fabulous music contained on Welcome To Mali
conquers all other considerations. Everybody - EVERYBODY - needs to get wise to this music, not just broadsheet readers and Obama supporters - it's undoubtedly one of the year's finest offerings. You could obviously analyze this from the perspective of a scholar of African music and decry the dilution of Mali's essential culture into our basic popular forms, but seriously now. A couple of 50 year olds have just made the most vibrant, youthful record you'll hear all year. What's not to love?